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   Chapter 27 THE FATAL TRESS

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 15224

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Was she dead?

The question was thundered out in the sound of the runner's own steps on the flinty places, and echoed by the stones that rolled away from under his feet. The thought throbbed in his brain, the unspoken words sang in his ears: Was she dead?

The face of Alice was before Ryan as he ran: the pale, delicate face of this last week, not the face of old days. The early days of summer were old days, though it was summer still. June by the Thames was buried deeper in the past than last year in Australia, though it was but August now. What had come over the girl in these few weeks? What had changed and saddened her? What made her droop like a trampled flower? What was the matter-was it the heart?

The heart! Suppose it was the heart. Suppose the worst. Suppose this shock had killed her. Suppose he-the criminal, the outlaw, the wretch unfit to look upon good women-had murdered this sweet, cruel, wayward, winsome girl! Even so, he must still push on and bring her aid. If that aid came too late, then let his own black life come to a swift and miserable end. His life for hers; the scales of justice demanded it.

The afternoon was dull but not dusky. The clouds were so high and motionless that it seemed as if there were no clouds, but one wide vault of tarnished silver. To point to that part of this canopy that hid the sun would have been guesswork.

Between the tall hedges the air was heavier than in the morning; the flies and midges swarmed in myriads. Even on the moor there was now no breath of wind. The heather looked lifeless, colourless; the green fronds peeping between had lost their sparkle; the red-brown of the undulating belt of road was the brightest tint in the landscape up there.

When Ryan was half-way across the moor, rain began to fall. He threw back his head as he ran, and the raindrops cooled his heated face. His hat had long ago been jerked off, and his hair lay plastered by perspiration to the scalp. The man's whole frame was on fire from his exertions. The breath came hard through his clenched teeth. His blue eyes were filled with a wild despair. Since the last backward look, that showed him the solemn group on the steps, he had thundered on without an instant's pause; and the time lost in toiling up the banks was made up by dashing headlong down the other side.

Now he was climbing the steep ascent that culminated at the spot where the road was curved round the face of the cliff, and protected on the right by the low stone parapet. Once at the top, he would soon be in Melmerbridge, for the remainder of the road was down-hill.

The wall of cliff on the left was jagged and perpendicular, and of the same russet tint as the road. Detached fragments of the rock rested in the angle formed by its base and the rough-hewn road. Among these boulders was an object that attracted Ryan's curiosity as he climbed up from below: it was so like a boulder in rigidity and colour, and in outline so like a man. Ryan saw the outline alter: of course it was a man, and he was crouching with his back to the rock for shelter from the rain. Suddenly the man rose, and staggered into the middle of the pass, between rocky wall and stone parapet, while Ryan was still some yards below. It was Pound.

Ryan had seen him in the street at Melmerbridge, in coming from church. Pound had reeled out of a public-house and caught him by the arm. Ryan had shaken him off with a whispered promise to meet him in the evening as arranged; and had explained the occurrence to his companion by some ready lie.

So Pound was on his way back to Gateby, drunk. This was evident from his attitude as he stood barring the pass, and from the hoarse peal of laughter that echoed round the cliff, and from the tones of blusterous banter with which he greeted his quondam leader.

"Welcome! Glad to see ye! But who'd ha' thought you'd be better than your word? Better, I say-you're better than your blessed word!"

"Stand clear!" shouted Ryan, twenty paces below.

Pound leered down upon him like a satyr. His massive arms were tightly folded across his bulky chest. His smooth face became horrible as he stood looking down and leering. His answer to Ryan was hissed savagely through his teeth:

"Stand clear be--! I want my money. I'll have my whack o' the swag, and have it now! D'ye hear? Now!"

"I have nothing about me," Ryan answered. "You drunken fool, stand clear!"

The twenty paces between them were reduced to ten.

"Nothing about you!" jeered Pound, spitting upon the ground. "Ay, I know-you carry your nothing round your neck, old man! And I'll have my share of it now or never!"

They were almost at arm's length now.

"Never, then!" cried Ryan, half drawing his revolver.

In a flash Pound's arm unfolded, and his right arm shot out straight from the shoulder. There followed a streak of fire and a loud report. Thin clouds of white smoke hung in the motionless air. From their midst came a deep groan and the thud of a dead weight falling. And Pound was left standing alone, a smoking pistol in his hand. For a minute he stood as still as Ryan lay.

"A shake longer," he muttered at length, "and I'd have been there and you here. As it is-as it is, I think you're cooked at last, skipper!"

He put the revolver back in his pocket, and stood contemplating his work. The sight completely sobered him. To a certain degree it frightened him as well. Of the other sensations, such as might ensue upon a first murder, Jem Pound experienced simply none. Even his fear was not acute, for it was promptly swallowed by cupidity.

"Now for them notes!"

He knelt down beside his victim, eyeing him cautiously. The fallen man lay stretched across the road, on his back. He had torn open his coat and waistcoat while running, and the white shirt was darkened with a stain that increased in area every instant. Pound wondered whether he had hit the heart. The upturned face, with closed eyelids and mouth slightly open, was slimy and wet with perspiration and the soft August rain. By holding the back of his hand half-an-inch above the mouth, Pound satisfied himself that Ryan was still breathing-"his last," thought Jem Pound, without any extravagant regret. Blood was flowing from a scalp-wound at the back of the head, received in falling; but this escaped the murderer's notice. What he next observed was that the arms lay straight down the sides, and that the right hand grasped a revolver. At sight of this, Jem Pound leapt to his feet with an excited exclamation.

He drew forth again his own revolver, to assure himself that he was not mistaken. No, he was not. The pistols were an original brace, and alike in every particular. The smooth, heavy face of the murderer lit up with infernal exultation. He pointed with a finger that trembled now-from sheer excitement-to the pistol in the lifeless hand, then tapped the barrel of his own significantly.

"Suicide!" he whispered. "Suicide-suicide-suicide!" He reiterated the word until he thought that he appreciated its full import. Then he knelt down and leant over the prostrate Ryan, with the confident air of a lucky man on the point of crowning a very pyramid of good fortune.

Slowly and daintily he unfastened the studs in Ryan's shirt; he was playing with blood now, and must avoid unnecessary stains. He would just take what he wanted-take it cleverly, without leaving a trace behind-and satisfy himself that it was what he wanted, more or less. Then he would fire one chamber of Ryan's revolver, and make off. But first-those notes! The chest was already bathed

in blood; but Pound saw at once the object of his search, the cause of his deed, and his black heart leapt within him.

Well, the little oiled-silk bag was small-unexpectedly small-incredibly small; but then there were bank notes for enormous sums; and one bank-note, or two, or three, would fold quite as small as this, and press as thin. To Pound's ignorant mind it seemed quite natural for Sundown, the incomparably clever Sundown, to have exchanged his ill-gotten gold for good, portable paper-money at some or other time and place. Dexterously, with the keen broad blade of his knife, he cut the suspending tapes and picked up the bag on its point. The oiled-silk bag was blood-stained; he wiped it gingerly on the flap of Ryan's coat, and then wiped the blood from his own fingers. He knew better than to allow bank-notes to become stained with blood.

Yet how light it was in his palm! It would not be lighter if the oiled-silk contained nothing at all. By its shape, however, it did contain something. Pound rose to his feet to see what. His confidence was ebbing. His knees shook under him with misgiving. He moved unsteadily to the low stone parapet, sat down, and ripped open the little bag with such clumsy haste that he cut his finger.

Jem Pound sat like a man turned to stone. The little bag was still in his left hand, and the knife; his right hand was empty the contents of the bag, a lock of light hair, had fallen from his right palm to the ground, where it lay all together, for there was no wind to scatter it.

Jem Pound's expression was one of blank, unspeakable, illimitable disappointment; suddenly he looked up, and it turned to a grimace of speechless terror.

The barrel of the other revolver covered him.

Bleeding terribly from the bullet in his lungs, but stunned by the fall on his head, Ned Ryan had recovered consciousness in time to see Pound rip open the oiled-silk bag, in time to smile faintly at what followed-and to square accounts.

Ryan did not speak. The faint smile had faded from his face. In the relentless glare that took its place the doomed wretch, sitting in a heap on the low parapet, read his death-warrant.

There was a pause, a hush, of very few moments. Pound tried to use his tongue, but, like his lips, it was paralysed. Then the echoes of the cliff resounded with a second, short, sharp pistol shot, and when the white smoke cleared away the parapet was bare; Jem Pound had vanished; the account was squared.

Ryan fell back. The pistol dropped from his hand. Again he became well-nigh senseless, but this time consciousness refused to forsake him utterly; he rallied. Presently he fell to piecing together, in jerky, delirious fashion, the events of the last few minutes-or hours, he did not know which-but it was all the same to him now. The circumstances came back to him vividly enough, if out of their proper sequence. That which had happened at the moment his senses fled from him was clearest and uppermost in his mind at first.

"The cur!" he feebly moaned. "He gave me no show. He has killed me-I am bleeding to death and not a soul to stop it or stand by me!"

Yet, very lately, he had decided that his life was valueless, and even thought of ending it by his own hand. Some dim reflection of this recent attitude of mind perhaps influenced him still, for, if an incoherent mind can be said to reason, his first reasoning was somewhat in this strain:

"Why should I mind? Who am I any good to, I should like to know? What right have I to live any more? None! I'm ready. I've faced it night and day these four years, and not for nothing-not to flinch now it's here!... And hasn't my life been gay enough, and wild enough, and long enough?... I said I'd die in the bush, and so I will-here, on these blessed old ranges. But stop! I didn't mean to be shot by a mate-I didn't mean that. A mate? A traitor! What shall we do with him?"

His mind had annihilated space: it had flown back to the bush.

A curious smile flickered over Ryan's face in answer to his own question.

"What have I done with him?" he muttered.

He raised himself on his elbows and looked towards the spot where he had seen Pound last. The formation of the parapet seemed to puzzle him. It was unlike the ranges.

"He was always the worst of us, that Jem Pound," he went rambling on; "the worst of a bad lot, I know. But those murders were his doing. So at last we chucked him overboard. And now he's come back and murdered me. As to that, I reckon we're about quits, with the bulge on my side. Never mind, Jem Pound"-with a sudden spice of grim humour-"we'll meet again directly. Your revenge'll keep till then, old son!"

All this time Ryan's brain was in a state of twilight. He now lay still and quiet, and began to forget again. But he could not keep his eyes long from the spot whence Pound had disappeared, and presently, after a fruitless effort to stand upright, he crawled to the parapet, slowly lifted himself, and hung over it, gazing down below.

Nothing to be seen; nothing but the tops of the fir-trees. Nothing to be heard; for the fir-trees were asleep in the still, heavy atmosphere, and the summer rain made no noise. He raised his head until his eyes fell upon the broad flat table-land. The air was not clear, as it had been in the morning. That pall of black smoke covering the distant town was invisible, for the horizon was far nearer, misty and indeterminate; and his eyes were dim as they never had been before. The line of white smoke left by an engine that crept lazily across the quiet country was what he saw clearest; the tinkling of a bell-for Sunday-school, most likely-down in one of the hamlets that he could not see, was the only sound that reached his ears.

Yet he was struggling to recognise as much as he could see, vaguely feeling that it was not altogether new to him. It was the struggle of complete consciousness returning.

He was exhausted again; he fell back into the road. Then it was that he noticed the parapet streaming with blood at the spot where he had hung over it. To think that the coward Pound should have bled so freely in so short a time! And how strange that he, Ned Ryan, should not have observed that blood before he had drenched himself in it! No! Stop! It was his own blood! He was shot; he was dying; he was bleeding to his death-alone-away from the world!

A low moan-a kind of sob-escaped him. He lay still for some minutes. Then, with another effort, he raised himself on his elbow and looked about him. The first thing that he saw-close to him, within his reach-was that fatal tress of light-coloured hair!

In a flash his mind was illumined to the innermost recesses, and clear from that moment.

Now he remembered everything: how he had come to his senses at the very moment that Pound was handling this cherished tress, which alone was sufficient reason and justification for shooting Jem Pound on the spot; how he had been on his way to fetch help-help for Alice Bristo!

He pressed the slender tress passionately to his lips, then twined it tightly in and out his fingers.

Faint and bleeding as he was, he started to his feet. New power was given him; new life entered the failing spirit: new blood filled the emptying vessels. For a whole minute Ned Ryan was a Titan. During that minute the road reeled out like a red-brown ribbon under his stride. The end of that minute saw him at the top of Melmerbridge Bank. There, with the village lying at his feet, and the goal all but won, he staggered, stumbled, and fell headlong to the ground.

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